"I was reading an article about 16 Horsepower," says Rhett Miller, the leader of the Old 97's, from Dallas, Texas, "and one of the guys in the band said something like, 'Trains are bad. If we could tour in a covered wagon, we would.' And I was like, 'You would not. Most of the time it sucks touring in a van."
Obviously, Miller isn't knocking himself out to establish his rustic credentials, even though doing so would likely enhance his reputation among boosters of neo-C&W, the genre to which his group is most frequently assigned. And because he doesn't toe the company line, the members of the intelligentsia behind this tight-knit, cliquish scene do more than view him and his bandmates (drummer Philip Peeples, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond and guitarist Ken Bethea) with suspicion; they all but accuse them of apostasy. For proof, look no further than a review of the act's Elektra Records debut, Too Far to Care, that was written for Rolling Stone by Grant Alden, editor of No Depression, a magazine that shares its name with the artistic style he regularly champions. After praising a release by the Bottle Rockets, Alden denigrated the Old 97's by comparison, dismissing their disc as "speed twang" that missed the point of the music entirely. "It was horrible," Miller concedes. "And what's worse is that Rolling Stone is the only thing people in Texas read. We get one bad review, and they all think everybody in America hates our record. Whereas it's actually just one guy--and Grant Alden has such an agenda."
Not that Miller doesn't occasionally ask for such abuse. He regularly commits the heresy of referring to the Old 97's as a "rock band" and isn't above verbally slapping around other country-rock combos. "We've had just about every alternative country band in the nation open up for us at one point or another," he says, "and about half of them are the kind that will get up there with, like, bales of hay and big straws sticking out of their teeth and go, 'This song is called "Two Turds and a Golf Ball."' God, I hate that."
Of course, the Old 97's are sometimes guilty of putting on country airs themselves. Miller claims that the players have tried to "steer clear of cowboy imagery in our packaging" but concedes that "we haven't done it totally successfully." He's right: The cover of Too Far features a couple of toy riflemen aiming their weapons at each other across a cactus-strewn landscape, and the disc itself is screened with a silhouette of a guitar-wielding Westerner who bears a striking resemblance to the Woody character from Toy Story. But track titles such as "Broadway," "Just Like California" and "Barrier Reef" make it clear that Miller is interested in doing more than putting dialogue from old John Wayne movies to a galloping beat. The musicians may employ the rudiments of rockin' country, but they do so without squeezing all of the juice out of them. Some of the tunes are clamorous, gleefully hokey entertainments and nothing more, while others, like "Salome" ("The full moon might work magic, girl/But I won't disappear"), don't hide their sincerity under a bushel basket. All of them, however, vibrate with the sheer joy these guys had bringing them to life. Plenty of y'allternative efforts are easier to admire than to listen to, but not this one; the disc is hook-crammed fun from the get-go. That it's also got some substance to it is a pleasant bonus.
Although Miller came by his romance with country honestly, he didn't commit to the music until after he had flirted with other forms. Before he had the slightest interest in Jimmy Rodgers or Hank Williams, in fact, Miller was over the moon about, of all groups, the Kingston Trio. "My mom was into folk, and when I was about eight or nine, she took me to see one of their shows," he recalls. "In a lot of ways, they were already over the hill at that point; it was more or less a traveling revue. But I thought it was awesome. Those kinds of songs just appealed to me so much more than, you know, the big rawk thing." This favorable impression was further heightened when he actually got a chance to meet the vocalists. "We hung around after the show, and as they were packing up their instruments, my mom said, 'Would you guys like some home-cooked food?' And they did. They came back to the house and ate with us and everything. My dad even played racquetball with them. It was very cool."
Thus smitten, Miller learned to play guitar--and by the time he hit fifteen, compositions were pouring out of him. Unlike other musically inclined classmates, who gravitated toward (his words) "U2 clone bands," he remained stubbornly unplugged--and before long, he had become a familiar figure at Dallas folk establishments. He even made a record during this period (buddy and future bandmate Hammond produced it), earning for himself a taste of local celebrity. "I think I inspired a whole glut of teenage acoustic singer-songwriters here," he confesses. "And unfortunately, only about one of them turned out to be any good."
Most of Miller's ditties back then weren't so hot, either; he calls them "starry-eyed and young." But he doesn't regret penning even the most teeth-gratingly earnest of them. "In the last year, I've gone from somebody who's asking for advice from people to somebody who gets asked for advice a lot," he says. "So when kids--younger songwriters--ask me what they should do, I tell them that it's really important to write a million songs. Because the first 750,000 are going to suck."
Other embarrassments followed. After deciding that he'd been a solo act for long enough, Miller put together a group with Hammond--and the result, Sleepy Heroes, soon caught the notice of a scribe at Seventeen magazine. Miller insists that he agreed to cooperate with the publication only after being promised that the subsequent article would focus on music rather than on his widely remarked-upon dreaminess. But just before the piece went to press, he reveals, "this British woman phones me up and says, 'We can't run this as it is--we need you to answer some other questions.' And the questions were like, 'Have you ever said anything to a girl that made her really mad?' and 'How would you describe your ideal girl?'" Miller's deathless reply to the latter query--"Grooviness is essential"--has dogged him to this day.
Sleepy Heroes eventually nodded off, but Miller and Hammond weren't ready to end their collaboration. The boys joined Killbilly, a now-defunct act with a unique angle on roots music. "It was full-on bluegrass, but with a drummer. Which meant that it was basically punk rock--really fast. And when you play it like that, something chemical happens. It's such a great live experience to see a band that goes at a really fast speed--rocking out but yet adhering to traditional American songwriting, with a melody and words that you can latch on to. It's visceral, and it hit Murry and me at the same time. We both realized that, hey, we could make a career out of it."
From this spark came the Old 97's, which played its first note in 1993. The band's punky country wasn't new; the Eighties witnessed a mini-boom in such groups (remember Jason and the Scorchers?). But the verve with which the Old 97's relit this torch made an immediate impact in Dallas. The outfit quickly issued a recording--Hitchhike to Rhome--to capitalize on its popularity, and the quality of the album convinced Chicago's Bloodshot Records, an influential proponent of the alterna-country movement, to ink the 97's to a contract. Wreck Your Life, the by-product of the deal, came out in 1995, and although Miller stills likes it, he doesn't romanticize the indie environment in which it was completed. "I think we actually had more freedom on Elektra than we did on Bloodshot," he says. "Because at Bloodshot, they were always saying, 'That's too poppy,' or 'Can't you make it sound a little bit more twangy?' And I'm like, 'What do you know from twang? I'm a seventh-generation Texan and you're from northern Illinois, and you're trying to tell me about twang?' But the Elektra people were like, 'We don't have any idea what you're doing, so just do it.' And that was more fun."
Elektra's support has held up through the release of Too Far to Care, but Miller realizes that it won't continue indefinitely unless the Old 97's start moving more units (current sales are hovering around the 20,000 mark). Radio airplay would certainly help this cause, but getting programmers to give them an assist may be difficult. "I've recently been learning about this format called 'heritage,' where they'll play classic rock and then they'll play something like the Wallflowers and Sister Hazel--and I have a feeling that may be our saving grace," he says. "But we're not that far from being a punk-rock band, so they may not even like us. We'll find out soon enough.
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"It's really hard to get any kind of perspective on where you stand in the music industry. Which is why so many good bands break up and why so many terrible ones don't. But to me, it's just silly to think that this whole genre is suddenly going to become successful. I think that if a band has a good song, then good things will happen. Or maybe I should say that I wish it was more like that--that it was more merit-based rather than it being driven by the industry deciding that techno is going to be big, and then all of a sudden the Prodigy starts selling more records than Elvis." He sighs before concluding, "I don't know."
What Miller does know is that he's not going to change who he is or what he believes in order to fit some marketer's master plan. He divulges that he and his bandmates listen to current country stations only when there's nothing else on--"and then we only do it to laugh at it." He suggests that Alan Jackson's commercial for Ford--"I'm gonna buy me a Ford truck and cruise it up and down the road"--could conceivably become a hit. He agrees that Garth Brooks is "obnoxious" but admits that he actually likes "Friends in Low Places." And he points out that he seldom buys old country classics. "We have a great collection of old cowboy music that we listen to in the van," he says, "but if I go to a store, I'll pick up Guided by Voices or Palace Music or Yo La Tengo. I don't want to sound like a big indie-rock dork, but I'd much rather hear that."
In other words, Miller and Grant Alden will never see eye to eye, but Miller doesn't care. He's more interested in hitting the road, noting that he's especially looking forward to his arrival in Denver: "My brother lives there," he explains, adding, "He is so excited about the Broncos." Meanwhile, he's concentrating on "writing whatever songs beg to be written and playing them as best we can. And if that's not good enough for some people, well, sorry."
The Old 97's. 8 p.m. Friday, February 20, Bluebird Theater, 3220 East Colfax Avenue, $6, 333-7749; with Chief Broom, 9 p.m. Saturday, February 21, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $5.25, 447-0095.